I don't know how it happened — perhaps the nap had something to do with it — but I was 30 minutes late for my afternoon hunt. This was inexcusable — the peak of the rut and deer were moving — but it happens. Part of me wanted to race to my stand and settle in as quickly as possible, but experience guided me otherwise. Instead of walking briskly to my ladder stand in a proven oak funnel, I hunted to it.
As I slipped into view of the woods, I probed inside them with my binocular. Seeing nothing, I snuck forward 10 yards to scan new angles, and the silhouette of doe ears suddenly became obvious. I disappeared into the long grass and studied the area around the doe.
I picked out a second doe, loafing in the shadows, then another. I sat down right there, near the two track, content to wait and watch. After all, it was the peak of the rut, I held a rifle, and this makeshift stand on the ground was as good as the one in a tree.
Just then I spied motion. One glimpse through the 10X binoc confirmed the source: a buck€¦a big buck! It was mere yards from my vacant ladder stand and distracted by its harem. The palmated, heavy horns and triangular face
indicated he was an old buck€¦a shooter. I crawled inches to my right and found a hole in the undergrowth through which I could thread a 7mm TSX.
The buck stood broadside, 90 yards from me, so I wasted little time resting the rifle on my knee, finding his chest in the scope, and pulling the trigger. I'm not sure what he scores, but he's going on my wall.
Silent is Deadly
Cardinal sin No. 1 is to spook a mature buck moments before the hunt. Deer have memories. They know when danger is in their vicinity, and they'll often avoid a dangerous spot for a day or two if they're badly spooked.
Mature bucks grow old by trusting each of their senses without having to verify it with another one. Many times if a mature buck hears a loud, foreign sound in his core area (where you've likely hung your stand), he'll simply turn and walk the other way, and you'll never know he was (almost) there. You'll hunt the whole morning — and perhaps for a few days later — wondering why Big Daddy didn't show up.
When it's dark and cold, or when you're running late, it's very tempting to walk as fast as possible to your deer stand. I've seen good hunters literally crash through the woods because they become fixated on reaching their safe and comfortable treestand before dawn breaks. But deer use their ears as effectively as any animal on earth, and if you blunder to your stand, your chance of spooking a buck is greatly increased.
Spook fewer deer by minimizing your noise and disturbance in the woods. This means parking far enough away that deer can't hear your truck or ATV. Don't slam truck doors or clank metal climbing stands on your way in. Silence your cellphone. Avoid using a flashlight, if possible, and definitely don't talk.
Frequently, it's impossible to walk silently through dry oak leaves, but you can reduce the sound created by your steps if you slow down and tread lightly. Relax. Know that your stand will be there, and you won't be sweaty when you get to it. Stop every few steps so your sounds become less human-like. Move when the wind blows or an airplane passes.
It takes mental discipline, but if you do these simple things, you'll see more deer while you're on your stand. And if you keep your eyes up and hunt to your stand, you could just kill one before you climb up.
When to Walk, When to Run
Realize, however, that there are few absolutes in deer hunting. Some seasons, terrains, and scenarios are more conducive to sneaking to your stand than others.
For example, during bow season, on dry, leaf-laden ground, try to be as stealthy as possible, but do not dally. The odds for success with this short-range weapon are best via ambush from a tree, therefore you should maximize your time there. But while holding a firearm during the rut, trophy bucks can be killed from the ground if you get a favorable wind and you hunt to your stand.
If you routinely spook deer in the mornings before dawn, consider waiting until it gets light enough to shoot then still-hunt to your stand. In the afternoon, hunting to your stand is a no-brainer. Just allow an additional 30 minutes to get to it. After all, you've identified a good spot — that's why you hung your stand there — and deer are moving. Had I rushed to my stand on that November afternoon, as so many treestand-oriented hunters do, I wouldn't have killed that buck.
So slow down, relax, sneak, glass, and hunt to your stand. You might be surprised what's already there.